When Process Replaces Product (or Why I Hate My HoA)

I dislike my home owners association.

I am not alone. 

Everybody dislikes their HoA except the VERY few Hitlerian psychos that enjoy the power trip. As individuals they are (mostly) wonderful people. Their mission, which is to maintain minimum standards that protect collective property values is a good one. I should want that and I do.

If the people are good and the mission is good what is the problem?

The answer is in the process and the accountability it enforces.

Ahead of the implementation of a process, too often more weight is given to manageability of the oversight as opposed to execution of the process itself. In other words, compliance replaces the product as the objective of the process.

I noticed a pattern early in my career. Inordinate amounts of analysis work was expended defining workflows in laborious detail and implemented with great technical difficulty. Often, the oversight they insisted be embedded into the process failed to create the value that management thought it would and they quickly lost interest. Within six months of implementation everyone wanted to turn that part off and the workers continued to produce the product without the constraints(approvals) the early workflow design mandated. (this lead to the evolution of case centric design but I digress)

When process replaces the product, barriers to compliance develop. If people do not see  value from the additional work compliance and accountability inevitably adds to their day, the default reaction is to try and avoid it. Everyone is willing to tolerate a certain level of inconvenience. That level however must be in reasonable proportion to the value the process brings to the individual.

When I learned the HoA required a delay of up to five weeks to review a repainting project using the same color that had been there for a decade, I resisted. The process was oriented to support management convenience as opposed to the ease of compliance for the homeowner. There are obvious well meaning justifications for the way this was implemented like dealing with volunteer schedules and the (imagined) simplicity that comes from one size fits all process design.

These objectives however do not serve the primary goal which is to encourage 400 homeowners not to use colors that make the neighborhood look like a Dr. Seuss book.

I would suggest two principles when designing any such process.

Enable oversight but optimize for execution. Any process without oversight is just a suggestion. (see Dallas Rules #10) Some degree of accountability must be in place but if you want to avoid this most common barrier to adoption, make sure the focus of each step drives the effective execution of the outcome rather than serving the convenience of a smaller group not doing the real work.

Educate on the expected value of oversight. As noted, there is overhead from process oversight and this can never be completely avoided. Ask any pharmaceutical manufacturer. It is often draconian and senseless, especially when defined by outside parties not invested in your success. You must endeavor though to make sure participants understand the underlying value for what would otherwise appear to them as a senseless burden. Sometimes the benefit is as unequivocal as avoiding incarceration. Other times it is less evident what the personal cost/benefit could be to following the rules (other than losing a job). Frustration will exist but making sure it is not misplaced internally also lessens adoption resistance.(don’t shoot the messenger)

In my day job I am responsible for the solution technical reviews. We have a process in place that greatly simplified what went before it. A key part of that is a questionnaire that captures basic description and describes the design. We clearly state in the beginning of the document, if you have the design documented in another form, submit that instead and reference. I am far less interested in the formatting than I am the content. I do still require that they write it down though. Developers hate to document but just as there is a level of inconvenience participants will tolerate, there is also a level of diligence any process demands.

Strike a reasonable balance and execute as much as possible with thoughtful common sense.

And for the record. The HOA rep and I had a very reasonable discussion and everything worked out fine. Nice people go along way to helping deal with a terrible process.

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